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What is Embodied Cognition and How Can it Help Your Back-to-School Prep?

Right about now, many parents are worrying what summer may have stolen from their kids’ heads.


“Our days have been so laid back, will the gains my child made in math last year be erased over the summer?”

“Yikes, I just realized we haven’t had a family reading night in weeks. Will this mean our kids will fall behind?”

“Now that summer school is over, what do I do over the next month to make sure there’s no slippage come September?”

These are valid concerns. Research confirms that the accumulation of summers without consistent learning activities will take a toll on a child’s potential. A 2013 Baltimore study showed 65 percent of the reading achievement gap between low and high socio-economic ninth graders could be traced to what they learned – or failed to learn – over their cumulative childhood summers.

A scary thought, for sure. Yet if your child or teen has played outside over the summer, gone to the park or walked the dog on a regular basis, hiked, swam, played badminton, or enjoyed water balloon fun, you’ve done a lot to avoid summer brain drain. Physical movement activates brain cells; the more physical activities, the greater likelihood of readiness and receptivity to learn new things. In fact, an emerging new field called “embodied cognition” prioritizes sensorimotor experiences – bodily active engagement with our environment – as critically important elements for thinking processes.

Dr. Monica Cowart of Merrimack College uses this helpful example to explain embodied cognition.

The various sensorimotor experiences that occur while performing an action in a particular environmental context further specify the type of categories/concepts the organism is capable of forming. For instance, it is common for a small child to have a basic understanding of concepts related to macroscopic objects, such as grass, that are likely to exist in her immediate environment, while having little to no real understanding of concepts related to microscopic objects, such as bacteria, that might be found in the same environment…she has sensorimotor experiences that are directly linked to the macroscopic objects in her environment, and these experiences serve as the foundation for concept formation. Not surprisingly, direct experience of microscopic entities will most likely occur later in the child’s life, when she is introduced to tools, such as a microscope, that will enable the detection of these entities.

There’s a good case for expecting this little girl to love high school biology because she loved romping in nature when young.

Authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explain embodied cognition in this way in their thought-provoking book, “Stealing Fire.”

[New studies] reflect a sea change in how we think about thinking. They move us from “disembodied cognition,” the idea that our thinking happens only in the three pounds of gray matter tucked between our ears, to “embodied cognition,” where we see thinking for what it really is: an integrated, whole-system experience….And today, with so much of our emotional and social lives mediated by screens, we’ve become little more than heads on sticks, the most disembodied generation of humans that has ever lived.

Kids wouldn’t need fidget spinners to expend excess energy if they were involved in full body spinning, swirling, twirling, or swinging more often.

Brains work well with bodies that move

When my sons struggled with spelling, I decided to try a more “whole system spelling experience.” I pulled out the old trampoline so they could use their arms, facial expressions, and hands to mime out the letters for each word while they were jumping. I stood by and reminded them of the correct letter if they couldn’t think of it. With a few repetitions, they “jump-spelled” the words correctly. Later, they wrote down the words, engaging part muscle memory, part visualization (since they were remembering in their mind’s eye what body posture they formed for each particular letter) and part cognitive recall.

At ages six and nine, my boys thought “jump-spelling” was a fun game. From my research, I considered it seriously significant to their academic success. I knew that the more I involved their bodies in their schoolwork, the more likely they would experience themselves as competent learners. And they did.

Rats taught me about the relationship between thinking and movement – lots of rats from the groundbreaking 30-year research of Dr. Marian Diamond at the University of California at Berkley. Diamond (who died recently) was one of the founders of modern neuroscience.

In her seminal studies, she observed rats living in cages without toys, and other rats in cages surrounded by toys such as wheels and balls, which enabled them to push, roll, climb, and happily move their bodies in more positions than the rats in toy-less cages. Diamond found that those rats grew less dendrite and synaptic structures than the rats living with the toys. These cages she called “enriched environments” since they supported the development of larger and heavier rat brains.

Yet compared with the wild rats in the Berkley hills outside of Dr. Diamond’s laboratory, even “enriched cages” fell short. The rats in their natural habitat who were running, climbing, and moving about naturally with other rats had more and denser neurons than any laboratory rat.

Movement matters for mood

The outdated notion that our brain is the only neural-networked organ in our body has been replaced by these fascinating facts:

  • The heart has about 40,000 neurons that play a central role in shaping emotion, perception, and decision-making.
  • The stomach and gut, referred to by scientists as the enteric nervous system, contain more than 500 million nerve cells, 100 million neurons, and 30 different neurotransmitters. Now dubbed the “second brain,” the gut also contains 30 neurotransmitters, including 90 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, regulating our moods and feelings of well-being.
  • Both heart and gut regularly “talk” to the brain, and vice versa. Some scientists now refer to this triad as “our three brains.”
  • Bodies that walk, run, jump, reach – exercises that not only work through all manner of movements but also aid in the communication of those neural networks in the brain, heart, and gut – making for more emotionally-stable, self-regulated children and teens.
  • Even small changes to our body posture can have profound effects.

Try it yourself by assuming the posture of Wonder Woman or Superman: hands on hips, elbows wide open, legs solid, feet firmly planted. Observe how your breathing changes and how you feel. Naturally more confident, right? No wonder little ones want to don those capes. The visceral changes automatically produce different thoughts and attitudes.

Harvard psychologist Ann Cuddy researched this “power pose” and found that, with as little as two minutes spent in the pose, subjects showed a 20 percent increase in testosterone and a 15 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol.

Build confidence and reduce stress for the upcoming school year by encouraging Wonder Woman and Superman play now. Then, to create other embodied thinking activities for your kids, think: whole system experiences and lots of movement

Embodied cognition is as easy as setting up an obstacle course with pillows for a five-year-old or a neighborhood treasure hunt for an 11-year-old. Be the parent to bring jump rope and hopscotch back on your block. Why not? You will soon see positive changes in how your child handles academic challenges. Expect to notice increased attentive focus, stick-with-it-ness, as well as better memory and intrinsic motivation. With more embodied cognition experiences you can anticipate a renewed curiosity and zest for learning, too. Count on it. That’s the design of the brain/heart/gut system.

And, when the school year starts, don’t forget to spend two minutes in that power pose yourself to protect your parental confidence. Then when you say, “Time to do your homework,” your voice and attitude will mean business, making compliance the only option.

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.

XO,

#TeamMotherly

PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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